Monday, November 8, 2010

The Importance of Playing Checkers

Kadakoi is a small pastoral community in the heart of East Pokot, Kenya.  This is an area that has been plagued with drought over the last ten years because of climate change, but has been traditionally arid throughout history.  I visited Kadakoi as part of a video project to shed light on the success of Church World Service’s Water for Life program.  The program director would like to expand the program internally by being a better fundraiser and externally by making proposals to the Kenyan Government to expand funding of rural water projects with the Millennium Development Goal financing they have available.

Our visit to Kadakoi was different than other Evaluation and Monitoring visits I have been on so far.  Typically, I have been in a group of visitors including local program staff and CWS staff on a scheduled visit to many communities in a region in one day.  They welcome us warmly, show us the results of our project implementation, have a meeting to discuss future plans, and quickly leave after dancing in celebration to the local songs and drums.   This time, we spent two days with the same community from sun up to sun down.  The video crew preferred shooting during those times because the lighting makes images look natural and easy on the eyes.  At first we sat through a meeting with the whole community, which consists of some Christians who are a minority to those who practice the traditional religion of the village.  The pastor prayed and led the meeting with a speech about what has happened since CWS came to work with the village to establish a local water resource.

In this region of East Pokot, the only viable way to retrieve water is to drill a bore hole to establish a deep water well.  The first location that local surveyors determined to drill ended up having no water, but the disappointment was overcome by drilling a second bore hole that was successful.  This work was mainly done by our partner organization in the region, Farming Systems Kenya.  Drilling bore holes is expensive – up to $10,000 for one hole – because of the drilling equipment and, in this case, the remote location.  The community was responsible for providing local materials such as sand, stone, and water to construct the well and dig the trench to pipe the water from the bore hole to a central location.  Now anyone in the community can pay two to five shillings (2-5 cents) to get water for cooking and cleaning for the day locally.  Previously, women and children were responsible for collecting water in 20 liter jerry cans from polluted water sources over 10 kilometers away.  This took eight hours out of a woman’s day which was also filled with normal chores of cooking, cleaning clothes, building a home, and caring for livestock.  Needless to say, these women and children were constantly tired, easily got disease from contaminated water, and never had an opportunity to consider an education.

Now that these women can easily retrieve clean water within their community, they have eight extra healthy hours in their day to commit to other activities.  Children have been encouraged to go to school by their parents – instead of girls fetching water with their mothers and boys herding goats and cows.  A hotel, a restaurant, and a general store have all opened up around the new water point.  All these businesses are managed and operated by women.  There were many healthy babies being carried around during our visit, which is evidence of the health of the women and community as a whole.

During the day, we were not responsible for any official documentation, so I took the time to get to know some of the community members.  It was culturally appropriate for me to talk with the men first, so I joined a small group of men congregated next to the water point.  Some men were reading the newspaper, some were chatting with each other, and others were playing a game that I thought was checkers.  It ended up being a slightly different game, although I was able to beat one of the guys at it after figuring out the rules!  I played a few rounds while asking questions and then taught them how to play my version of checkers.  The guys I was talking with were either in school or had completed high school.  Luckily for me, this meant we could talk in English.

After narrowly defeating one of the guys at both his version of checkers and my own, I ventured out to talk with other members of the community.  I met a group of women grinding their local crop of corn into flour with a posho mill, a woman selling goods at her general store, a large group of women weaving baskets and selling vegetables from their gardens, and even a three year old girl collecting firewood for her mother’s restaurant kitchen.  None of these women had any advanced education like the men, and yet they looked as though they understood much more about community, business, and the products of their labor.

Many people in Kenya consider these Pokot men to be lazy.  They sit around on their elders chairs and watch the women do all the work – even building their house.  My coworker, Sammy, is not one of those people.  When he was visiting some of our partner communities in West Pokot two years ago, a group of cattle raiders crossed into the village where he was staying.  From the top of a hill where his guest house was located, he watched all the village men come together with their own AK47’s to protect the village from the raiders.  These men were able to hold off the raiders long enough for them to decide to move to the next town.  He points out that no women were involved in this dangerous mission.  “If you were to ask a Pokot woman if the men in her village are lazy, she will just laugh at you.”  This is because they consider these men very important for protection as well as for guidance.  During the long hours of sitting in the elder’s chairs, those men are discussing important business, marriages, and the effects of predicted weather patterns and government policy. 

So, playing checkers is very important for the survival of the entire community.  My question is why does it have to be only the men?  The water committee developed to oversee the continued maintenance of the water source is required to have equal numbers of men and women.  This has allowed women to take on a new role of leadership in a project that directly affects their lives.  The water committee members are all Christians in this particular village where the majority is not.  This has irritated existing views of the church in Kenya as being corrupt.  A lack of trust in the leadership of the community and their new resource is sure to cause problems in the future.  Perhaps a game of checkers could lead to a peaceful resolution.

For more images from this trip please visit my facebook photo album.


  1. There are many issues here that I don't fully address: the influence of violence in this community, other forms of female human rights issues (early marriage (11-14yrs), female circumcision, lack of educational opportunity), and many others. Please send me an email if you have any questions.


  2. Hey Ben- I know this post is from a while ago, but thanks for your honesty and insights! The way in which you describe the daily life of the people you met that day and their contributions to the community is very thoughtful, yet you still are able to question the justness of the gender divisions in a way that honors the dignity and lives of the men and women in Kadakoi. Thanks for sharing!